ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

The following article on the agricultural performance of GM crops was written by Mark Griffiths, probably the foremost UK critic of the agronomic performance of GM crops. The article shows how US research is indicating that GM crops simply don't work in terms of agronomic performance (yields etc frequently being significantly worse than for non-GM varieties).  So why are millions of acres of GM crops being grown by US farmers in the often mistaken belief that they are more profitable?  The article below explains why.

See the internet links at the end of this article for access to Mark's website which provides a lot more information on these issues and has many valuable related links. You can also, if you wish, register from that site onto nlpwessex's highly recommended e-mail list which will help keep you abreast of GM crop issues.

The Emperor's Transgenic Clothes
Are GMO lemmings in the US leading all of us over the biotechnology cliff?

by Mark Griffiths  BSc FRICS FAAV

Two or three years after their introduction the transnational biotechnology companies now point with great pride to the millions of acres of transgenic crops sweeping the United States and other parts of the world where the regulation of agriculture utilising genetically modified organisms has been ‘engineered’ to ease its introduction.

Rapturous testimonials by apparently fully satisfied ‘produce or bust’ North Americans are paraded in corporate advertising campaigns. They make it clear that no self-respecting progressive grower could possibly expect to survive far into the future of the competitive world of agricultural global trade without the now essential genetic material derived from foreign viruses and bacteria randomly inserted into the genomes of traditional crop varieties.

There’s no doubt that this technology has the ability to impress US farmers who are desperate to find any way they can out of the current agricultural recession in America.  The ability to use a broad spectrum ‘total’ herbicide such as Roundup (which allows no other plant competing with the crop to survive) is seductive. Rick Faulkner of New Madrid, Missouri, was certainly impressed with the results on his farm in 1997: "With Roundup Ready soybeans, I had the cleanest beans I've ever had. I'd say there were less than 10 weeds in the whole 120 acres when I came through at harvest."

But like many of life’s most powerful seductions the ‘beauty’ of many GM products is proving to be only skin deep.

Just like the silicon implants embedded in the heaving chests of her Hollywood cousins, the GM seductress’s plastic surgery has begun to develop serious complications.  Most spectacular to date has been the thousands of acres of crop failures affecting genetically modified cotton in Mississippi in 1997, resulting in the biotech surgeons having to pay out millions of dollars in compensation.

Other side effects of the technology are more subtle.  Research publicised in 1998 by the University of Arkansas and the agro-chemical giant Cyanamid (whose sales of residual herbicides have been badly hit by the new broad spectrum herbicide resistant GM varieties) revealed reduced profit levels and lower yields for GM soya and cotton compared with unmodified varieties.

Surely some mistake.  If there were problems with GM crops then US farmers wouldn’t be growing them, right?  After all penny-pinching American farmers are not technically and financially gullible, are they?

These anomalies led me to an interesting exchange of email correspondence, plus a particularly lengthy transatlantic telephone conversation, in September 1998 with Dr Charles Hagedorn, Professor of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences, of Virginia Tech University.

In addition to his academic work, Professor Hagedorn is an Extension Specialist within the Virginia Co-operative Extension Service operated in conjunction with Virginia State University and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The service is part funded by both state and federal governments. As an Extension Specialist Chuck Hagedorn’s task is to transfer research findings and agronomic advice from the service partners directly to working farmers in Virginia so that they have access to the best science when selecting crop varieties and designing field management strategies.   Similar arrangements exist in other US states.

As a scientist Chuck Hagedorn was not entirely happy with the way US farmers are being drawn into using what many regard as an unproven technology.  He agreed to go ‘on the record’ regarding some of his observations about the way GM crops have been introduced in the States:

"Traditionally, companies in the US introduce a new variety, and our Extension crop specialists (in each state where the crop is grown) then field test the new variety for at least 3 to 5 years. During this field testing process the Extension crop specialists introduce the new variety to farmers in their region and give them unbiased information (the good points and bad points) about growing the new variety. The Ag companies get good information about the performance of their new varieties from this ‘traditional’ crop evaluation process as well.

With the GM crops, this traditional process has been largely bypassed, mainly due to the rush to try and establish market share with the GM crops. Now, the Ag companies are going directly to the farmers with contracts for growing their GM crops, and the Extension crop specialist is ‘out of the loop’. In the US, sales of the GM crops to farmers have gone wild, and farmers all want them - whether they need them or not. This is a classic case of what has been described in the literature as a situation where commercial development and marketing is way ahead of the science.

Our USDA is now deregulating GM crops with great speed, so I don't see the situation changing. It will take some type of major problem (such as a Bt-resistant cotton weevil or a roundup resistant weed) to make USDA take a slower approach. The GM crop advocates, of course, claim that no such problems will occur. I don't think it wise to presume to be in such complete control of biology."

In the politest possible way Chuck Hagedorn seemed to be talking about US agricultural lemmings, and possibly worse.

To some degree Professor Hagedorn’s words are already proving prophetic. The US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) has since announced that it is introducing special restrictions on new varieties of GM corn engineered to contain a gene from a bacteria, colloquially known as Bt.  The Bt gene is embedded in the DNA of every cell of every corn plant and is toxic to insects that are a pest of the crop.

However, unlike spray insecticides, the Bt pesticide gene resides permanently in the environment without molecular breakdown throughout the life-cycle of the plant.  The pests are, therefore, constantly exposed to the toxin (which, incidentally, remains in the final food product) and as a result they mutate rapidly to create their own resistance to it.

Consequently many farmers now have to spray insecticide on their genetically engineered Bt crops in addition to trying to make use of the toxic gene. Effectively they have to pay twice for pest control, once through the ‘technology fee’ that comes with the GM seed and again when they purchase and apply insecticide on the crop.  It is worth remembering that the original purpose of these crops was to make such sprays unnecessary.

Such is the rapid breakdown of this technology that the EPA has now ruled that new Bt varieties can only be planted on part of a farmer’s corn acreage. The somewhat shaky idea is that by having some of the crop in non-Bt varieties the pests will have somewhere to go where they can reproduce without producing Bt resistance mutation.  Ironically this approach involves actively encouraging the survival of pests rather than eliminating them as originally intended, and not all farmers feel comfortable with a strategy which can leave part of their crop with neither GM nor spray protection.  If they bottle out and insist on spraying the pests as a result, then forty percent of the crop has to be dedicated to non-Bt varieties.

Under Professor Hagedorn’s scenario, where Extension specialists are now ‘out of the loop’ as far as GM varieties are concerned, it is not easy to get hard data on the real effects of GM products on crop performance and farmer’s incomes.

The vast majority of GM performance data is held by the biotech companies themselves.  It is rare for them to release it in detailed format, and certainly this is so when it comes to making comparisons with traditional unmodified varieties.  When data is released it is usually in the form of summaries where unreleased raw data has been analysed and interpreted by the companies themselves, not by independent agronomists such as Chuck Hagedorn.   The raw data itself is rarely provided.  So far there has been little attempt to make formal performance comparisons in a critical way between transgenic and non-transgenic varieties, even within the publicly funded Extension Services themselves.

Where such work is done, and the results published, crop varieties are usually listed by reference number and the fact that varieties are transgenic or otherwise would often not be immediately apparent to a working farmer without his doing a great deal of further investigation.

Not even the agronomists themselves may know. When I contacted the University of Purdue in November 1998 about which of the varieties in their corn trials were transgenic, Phil DeVillez their corn performance coordinator, confirmed an astonishing lack of available information: "To determine if a hybrid [in our trials] is transgenic you would have to contact that company. That information is not supplied to us."

It was at this point that Chuck Hagedorn’s remarks about the Extension specialist ‘being out of the loop’ took on a whole new meaning.  The bizarre situation surrounding the Purdue corn trials appeared to be clear confirmation that the biotech companies were doing their best to keep transgenic varieties away from the traditional independent tests which would make it possible to compare their performance with unmodified varieties. Transgenics are sweeping America thanks, at least in part, to a huge independent testing vacuum.  This vacuum is conveniently providing a walkover  victory for commercial imperative and sophisticated marketing, over objective science and genuine utility.

With diligence some information can, however, be dug up.  Trials by Cyanamid on nearly 300 test sites across the US showed that high performing non-modified varieties produced yields up to 20% more than glyphospate herbicide resistant transgenic soyabeans in 1997.  Not surprisingly the breeders of the transgenic varieties have asked to see the raw data behind Cyanamid’s claims.  Neither side, however, seems keen to discuss their raw data.

So is it possible to find any independent data?  Well, there is a little and it makes interesting reading.   The University of Purdue has done some work which looked at the yield performance of GM soya varieties in 1997 compared with non-modified varieties.  Herbicide trangenic soya varieties yielded on average  between 12% and 20% less than unmodified varieties grown at the same locations.

Work done by the University of Arkansas is presented in a way which makes it harder to elicit ‘average’ comparisons, but within the published listings for the 1998 harvest the top performing Soya varieties in terms of yield are almost invariably non-modified varieties.  One of the reasons for this is that genetic engineering is not nearly as reliable as the biotechnologists would have us believe.  Engineering traits into plants using transgenic techniques can be highly "genome dependent".   In other words, only some varieties are capable of successful modification in this way.

Guidance from the University of Minnesota Extension service issued in September 1998 also hints at a perhaps understandable, though not commendable, reluctance by biotechnology companies to draw farmers’ attention to the higher performance of superior non-modified varieties : "It is still important that producers ask for performance information on non-Roundup Ready Soybeans and pick the highest yielding varieties. However, farmers who ask the right questions on herbicide resistant varieties and best evaluate unbiased performance data will likely have the highest profits this coming year". Do you get their drift?

So what does all this mean for the future of genetic engineering in agriculture?  Firstly, it would appear that it involves taking additional risks with the safety of our health and the well-being of our environment in return for marginal or non-existent benefits in many cases.  In a press interview in San Fransisco in November 1998 the Chief Executive of biotech giant Monsanto, Bob Shapiro, described those risks (‘effects’) as "unknown, and to some degree unknowable".

Secondly, the claimed benefits in many cases are only perceived and not actual.   A couple of excerpts from the University of Mississipi’s October 1998 Extension Service agronomic newsletter are instructive.  First, Dr Alan Blaine on Soybean variety selection since the advent of transgenic crops:

"After the last couple of years, I have taken a new approach to selecting varieties. As always, growers need to use varieties that perform consistently and are adapted to a particular soil type or have a particular disease package. This is the way you have always or should have always selected varieties, but with the introduction of many new transgenic lines and new premier lines every year, we have, in many cases, overlooked the consistency factor. I try to look at as many tests as I can. I also look at yields over a wide range of environments and listen to everything a company can tell me about a variety, but I am not going to believe anything until I see it.

Repeatedly I have heard about how great this new line is or how wonderful this particular variety is. All this may be true, but the only way you are going to know this for certain is to look at a variety's ability to perform consistently, and this will not be accomplished based on one year. A new line may be the greatest ever released, but I'd find out on 10 to 20 acres. I personally would not experiment with any variety on any sizable acreage.

Take a sensible approach to variety selection, because many of the problems experienced over the last 2 years might have been avoided if thoroughly tested. In defense of new varieties, I am not questioning their abilities to perform, just that an in-depth evaluation allows you to better identify strengths and weaknesses. In the case of many transgenic varieties, more changes than the number. However, only time will allow you to get a better handle on performance."

Even if he appears reluctant to be overtly critical of them Dr Clarke clearly has some doubts about the performance of transgenic soya varieties, as well as the claims that the companies producing make about them.  So what does his colleague Dr Will McCarty have to say about his experience of transgenic cotton varieties.  Are his views more explicit?

"Before you plant transgenic varieties, be sure you need the value added trait. Also evaluate the yields of varieties with the transgenic trait you desire and study the risk/benefit ratio, if any. In other words, if you feel you need Bt and the variety offered does not, or has not yielded well for you or in your area, consider the risk of not using it and the potential cost of additional insect control versus potential yield loss to planting it. The same can be said for a transgenic variety for herbicide tolerance.

There were reported problems with Roundup Ready cotton in Mississippi during the 1997 and 1998 growing seasons. There are also reports of possible Roundup Ready problems in at least three other states in 1998. Before you pay extra for the convenience of using a particular herbicide over-the-top, be sure the variety fits your farm and will yield well. Also, consider if you really need that particular program….

What I am saying is that what you are doing may not be all bad and you need an economic incentive to change…. Also, transgenic varieties may not perform like their parent. Just because you have had good experience with a particular variety does not mean that you will have the same results with a transgenic version. Variety selection is critical."

Once again, in the politest possible way, we have an independent US agricultural Extension specialist suggesting that his farmers may be making a mistake in economic terms when it comes to rushing into growing genetically engineered crops (complete with their randomly inserted viral and bacterial components).

If he is correct, then why are the biotech companies pursuing a technology which in many respects appears to be inferior? In addition to the fact that they have already spent too much R&D money to be able to turn back now in the face of shareholder pressure, the answer lies in the economic control of large parts of the food chain which the technology promises to provide.

Unlike traditional varieties GM seeds are subject to patent. This allows restrictive contractual obligations to be imposed on GM growers which it is not possible to apply using traditional varieties.  Farmers cannot save their own seed from GM crops without the consent of the patent holder, and GM seed supply contracts frequently stipulate that the farmer must only use chemicals controlled by the same biotechnology company.

In these circumstances the temptation for biotechnology companies to start buying traditional seed houses (which is already happening at an alarming rate) in order to phase out existing non-modified varieties irrespective of their merits is a major worry.  It is not in the biotechnology companies’ interests for farmers to continue having access to competitive non-GM seed.

If some farmers think that such scenarios of economic totalitarianism are simply the product of unsubstantiated paranoia and wild imagination, then the views of Friedrich Vogel, head of BASF's crop protection business, make it clear that the provision of favours to the farming community does not form  part of the biotechnology industry’s agenda for the ubiquitous introduction of this technology: "Farmers will be given just enough to keep them interested in growing the crops, but no more. And GM companies and food processors will say very clearly how they want the growers to grow the crops."

Putting aside for one moment the most important fact (both in terms of human rights and in the context of market economics) that most consumers do not wish to eat genetically modified products, what are we to make of all this? Donning the emperor’s new trangenic clothes, is it wise for farmers across the globe to start emulating their American cousins? Under the fabricated justification of international economic competitiveness and sustainable development, should we all be plunging over the hallowed cliff of biotechnology, dragging the health of society and the well-being of our environment with us into the genetically modified shark-infested waters below?

Bill Christison farms over 2,000 acres at Chillicote, Missouri, producing soybeans, corn, wheat, hay and cattle. He is President of the US National Family Farm Coalition. His words delivered at a conference on Biodevastation held in St Louis, Missouri in July 1998, give an important perspective on the value of growing  GM herbicide resistant soya.  They perhaps provide a poignant clue to an honest answer to those questions: "The promise was that you could use less chemicals and produce a greater yield. But let me tell you none of this is true."

Mark Griffiths BSc FRICS FAAV
Environment Spokesman
Natural Law Party, United Kingdom

January 1999
(Copyright Reserved)

For more information on the poor agronomic performance of GM crops visit Mark's website  and the Farming News page on this site

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